New Book Explores 'A Far More Complex' Ethan Allen And The Green Mountain Boys

May 16, 2018

You probably at least know Ethan Allen as one of the founders of the state of Vermont — a sort of mythic, heroic figure. Well, a new book tells a more complicated story of Allen and the Green Mountain Boys and the battles they fought. 

Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom: Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys and the American Revolution is the latest book by Christopher S. Wren, a former New York Times bureau chief and a visiting professor at Dartmouth College.

Listen to an extended conversation between Wren and VPR's Henry Epp above.

"I know he can do no wrong in the popular imagination but he was a far more complex person than history gives him credit for," Wren said about Allen. "I mean, he was a loud-mouthed opportunist. He was inept ... in his only battle. But he was a charismatic propagandist who could inspire or coerce other settlers to join him. And his courage did surface after he got captured by disobeying orders."

"I know he can do no wrong in the popular imagination but he was a far more complex person than history gives him credit for. I mean, he was a loud-mouthed opportunist." — Author Christopher S. Wren

That sole battle was a mission Allen took to Montreal, which — spoiler — did not work out as hoped.

"He thought he could capture Montreal maybe if he took a few people with him and it'd be very easy to do — and not so," Wren explained. "They were very surprised when he showed up and tried to do it. But they put together a force to stop him, to prevent it, and he had to surrender.

"He said it was to save the lives of the people he'd hired, but he'd actually had a bunch of people he'd paid to go in and loot Montreal. ... When the fighting got nasty, they all deserted him and he was left — and he also blamed other people for his problems, but I think it all came down to his personality."

After the Montreal debacle, Allen was captured by the British and eventually spent time in prison in Great Britain.

Credit Simon and Schuster

Later in the American Revolution, Allen made it back to Vermont, and it is at this point he actually negotiated with the British to potentially make Vermont a province of Great Britain.

Wren said that Allen may have taken his land into account when trying this approach.

"Land was worth a great deal in those days. It was how you made your fortune and how you made your mark and how you rose in what was ostensibly a classless society. So he wanted to be part of it," Wren said.

"And he realized I think at one point that his chances were better if he created a Vermont that was independent. And that would mean he'd have to perhaps have a go under the wing of the British as an independent colony. It was not a republic, it was a state-in-waiting."

"And so they ... really wanted to join the United States but they were turned down," Wren continued. "And he looked to Britain to see what they could do and he was playing it on all sides, figuring how he could make some money."

If it seems like Allen and his cohort were motivated by self-interest, Wren says you aren't wrong.

"They did have their self-interests," Wren said, "but the fact was at that time everybody ... had their self-interests and it was something that was built into the fabric of early Vermont."

"Ethan Allen was a figure that people wanted to believe in, because it resonated with what they wanted Vermont to be."

The book details battles that took place along Lake Champlain up into Quebec, as well the battles of Bennington and Hubbardton. And these battles certainly weren't smooth sailing — there were sometimes mistakes made my military officials, but also a lot of suffering and illness.

"The health problems were terrible. Congress sent an army up to capture Canada and to bring Canada in as a 14th colony. They ran into terrible resistance and the weather," Wren said. "If you think of what a winter is like now in Vermont, it was even worse then, when you were living outside in the woods. And people were literally freezing to death.

"We think of drums and flags as representing in the American Revolution, but not up here. It was scalping knives and tomahawks and sometime hand-to-hand fighting."

Seth Warner and Ira Allen, other notable figures from this period of Vermont history, are referenced throughout Wren's book — and while Wren describes both men as "virturous people," the author admits that neither one ultimately achieved the same degree of prominence as Ethan Allen. 

"Ethan Allen was a figure that people wanted to believe in," Wren said, "because it resonated with what they wanted Vermont to be."